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Thursday, September 27, 2018

What We Might Be


“But in the days to come…”
Micah 4:1 (Common English Bible)

            Some years ago I was sharing lunch with my mother in Irving, Texas. A woman seated at a nearby table looked at me, grabbed a notepad from her purse, and approached me, “May I have your autograph?” I inquired of her who she thought I was. She named a football player with the New York Giants and, apparently, she was a huge fan. Naturally, I politely told her my name and that I was a Presbyterian pastor serving a congregation right there in Irving. She refused to believe me. With anger and frustration all mingled together in one burst of emotion, she answered, “If you don’t want to give autographs, say so!” and returned to her meal.  She saw something in me that I was not – and never will be. And, I fear, I have cost a Giants player one of his fans.

            God does something similar. God doesn’t mistaken our identity, as the woman in Irving, but God does see in us something so much more than is presently true. With a forward-looking eye, God sees what we might become.  Think of a teacher that goes into a classroom, a class of girls and boys. The teacher lifts his or her eyes away from the present to see women and men. The best teachers understand that, in a sense, they are architects and builders of the people those children will become. It is the teacher’s vision of “what might be” that directs every moment spent with the children. The vision is active in the present, shaping, and molding, and encouraging children to something more.  Yet, for the future to be claimed, each child must be a willing participant in the process of learning. In Jesus Christ, God shares God’s vision for what we might become. It is a work completed by the Holy Spirit as we willingly participate by paying attention to God.

            Our encouragement comes from the rich examples in the Old and New Testament – examples of God’s uncommon work in common people. Moses had a speech impediment but would stand before a king and demand that the people of Israel be set free from their bondage in Egypt. David, a shepherd boy tending sheep, would defeat a Philistine giant, Goliath, rescuing Israel from an enemy. Simon, a name that means hearer,  or one who simply hears, would have his name changed by Jesus to Peter, a rock, upon which Jesus would build his church. And a woman of sin – an outcast child of the city – would be addressed by Jesus as “daughter” and spoken to as if she had already entered the future as an heir to God’s promises. Each story nudges us to come to our present, filled with difficulties and struggle, with a vision of the future, a glimpse of what might be.

            Here, in this brief passage, the prophet Micah lifts his eyes away from the present to the days that are to come. By holding clearly before him God’s promise of more, Micah finds refreshment in the present difficulty. Without the joyful anticipation of something more to come, without the conviction that the God who worked uncommonly in common people in the past continues the same today, Micah would lose his capacity to hold-on, and the spirit of striving would go out of his work. Our vision of the future always determines the behavior and attitudes that we bring to the present. Our dominant thought and hope regulates how we go about our responsibilities today. It is wise to ask what vision pulls us forward? What future do we have in mind? What do we see as the possible consummation of our present work? It is not enough to know what we are doing today. We must draw so close to God that we capture a glimpse of what we are working for – for a glimpse of what we might be.

Joy,

Saturday, September 22, 2018

The Human Touch


“Incensed, Jesus reached out his hand, touched him, and said, ‘I do want to. Be clean.’”
Mark 1:41 (Common English Bible)

A provocative cartoon has recently circulated on social media that depicts an elderly woman arriving for worship. She approaches “her” seat in the sanctuary, touches a young man seated with his family on the shoulder and says, “I understand you are newcomers. Welcome. So glad you’re here. Oh, by the way, you’re in my pew.” The cartoon is unsettling for those who have worshiped regularly for some time. We have seen it. For some, it was their shoulder that was touched. Any sincerity of welcome dissipates when the woman makes it all about her – and her one desire to have her seat returned. It is an all too common narrative, placing oneself before others.

Here, in this unfolding drama in Mark’s Gospel, a leper thrusts himself into this narrative – a me first approach to life – and asks if Jesus would write another narrative, one that places others before self: “If you want, you can make me clean.” (Mark 1:40b) What must the leper have felt? All he desired is a cure for his skin disease. Because of his disease he was an outcast. When he was outdoors, he was feared and shunned by everyone. Whenever he came within close proximity of others he was required to cover his face with a cloth and cry, “unclean,” so that no one came closer to him and risked infection. It was self-imposed isolation – or isolation required by religious law, which makes it all the more heartbreaking.

There is good news in this story. Jesus ignored the conventional taboo of remaining at a distance from such people, went right up to him, touched him and released love and healing into the man. Jesus’ gesture was instinctive, gracious, and spontaneous. It was the natural expression of someone who lived in an alternative narrative that placed others first. It was of no concern to Jesus what others may think of him. The result was that the man’s isolation was dismantled and health restored. I imagine that every time this man told his story – and Mark tells us that he “started talking freely and spreading the news” – he would bring the story to a climax by saying, “He touched me!”

Jesus wrote a different narrative in this encounter with human need. Entering swiftly and readily into the midst of people’s joy and sorrows, Jesus provided the world with an alternative way to live. Rather than keeping people at arm’s length, perhaps justifying this response that their misery is their fault or the result of poor choices, Jesus welcomed people with warmth and affection – particularly those who had great need. Whenever Jesus confronted misery, illness, and loneliness, his heart grew larger. Jesus asks those who would follow him to do the same. Today we have conquered distance and now travel the world with considerable ease. What remains, Jesus teaches, is that we close the distance we have between one another.

Joy,

Friday, September 14, 2018

The Struggle to Doubt


“I know, Lord, that our lives are not our own, that we’re not able to direct our paths.’
Jeremiah 10:23 (Common English Bible)

My earliest memory of doubting God was as a young child. I received as a birthday gift a beautiful, leather-bound Bible. I had graduated from a children’s Bible to a “real” Bible that was a joy to hold in my hand – the rich, supple, black leather with a genuine silk bookmark attached in the binding. The elegant pages were gilded with gold and the absence of pictures was, for me, the mark of a mature Bible. Continually, my brother, Wayne, and I heard from our parents that God’s strength was their strength for daily living. Accepting my parents’ faith as my own did not require any intentional decision from me. My belief in God was more organic, as I believe is true for most children living in a Christian home. Belief was a natural part of life – a life wrapped in demonstrations of trust in a loving God by parents who, for the most part, were happy. God was spoken of as a powerful force that has, in Jesus Christ, intruded our lives with powerful love and care.

Then, one evening my parents came home with a puppy – a collie. Until he was housebroken, the puppy would be kept in a large cardboard box during the night. Even now I wonder if portable, home kennels were available in the late sixties. If they were available, why did we settle for a cardboard box? None-the-less, the cardboard box proved to be a poor choice during the first night. The new addition to our family tipped over the box and had a delightful romp of the house. And, as any dog owner knows, puppies love to chew. That night, the chew toy of choice was my new, leather bound Bible. I was devastated. More, I experienced doubt in the existence of an all-powerful God. Certainly, if God was real, God would have protected God’s Holy Word to us from being consumed by a puppy! Everything my parents had built their life on seemed to be crumbling.

Yet, my first round with the experience of doubt in God quickly became a struggle. My parents’ faith remained unshaken. More, my father – a layperson – began taking me with him as he visited members of the church, members experiencing devastating loss of one kind or another, to read scripture to them, and pray with them, and love them. Even as a child – or because I was a child – I could clearly see hope returning in their eyes. Something greater than my father’s presence and spoken words was happening in each home we visited. I had no answer to why God would allow a mere puppy to feast on God’s beautifully bound word. But God kept showing-up in my parents’ life and the lives of those they loved in the name of Jesus Christ. I remained angry for longer than I should have about that chewed Bible. But doubting God became a burdensome struggle.

Thoughtful people today are pondering the significance of what is happening across the world. Time-honored political alliances are crumbling, terrorist organizations are multiplying, and the threat of nuclear war is once again disturbing our hopes for peace. Faith in God is now being asked to do some heavy-lifting. An increasing number of people now look at the appalling amount of evil in the world and question how such things can be reconciled with the existence of a loving God. Perhaps the prophet Jeremiah has something of value to add to this conundrum: “I know, Lord, that our lives are not our own, that we’re not able to direct our paths.” Simply, we are not in charge. We may have certain expectations of how God should be at work in the world, like preventing puppies from making a chew-toy out of a leather Bible, but that is not ours to direct. God was God before us, is God now, and will be God tomorrow. So, it becomes a matter of where we direct our focus. Direct your gaze toward all the evil, and hurt, and destruction in the world, and doubt wells-up. Direct your gaze upon the eyes of those who are loved by Christians, in the midst of difficulties, and doubt struggles.

Joy,

Thursday, September 6, 2018

I Don't Remember Me (Before You)


“These things were my assets, but I wrote them off as a loss for the sake of Christ.”
Philippians 3:7 (Common English Bible)

           TJ and John Osborne, brothers, grew up playing music together in Deale, Maryland. Following their move to Nashville they joined together as a vocal duo to become Brothers Osborne. Their most recent album, Port Saint Joe includes a rather nostalgic track, I Don’t Remember Me (Before You). Widely considered one of the deepest tracks on the album, the song speaks to the man who can’t remember – or maybe doesn’t want to remember – what his life was like before he met the love of his life: “I heard I was a wild one. I feel like a child, son. But I really don’t recall.” And a few lines later, “I’ve seen pictures. And I’ve heard stories ‘bout the boy I used to be. But I don’t remember me.” The song is a bold declaration that once he fell in love with another he wanted to grow up and change his ways for the better. Now, looking back, he is unable to recognize the man he was before.

           A similar tune plays in the Apostle Paul’s letter to the Church in Philippi, the Book of Philippians. The letter is Paul’s declaration of his love for Jesus Christ. Near the middle of this letter Paul recalls the man he used to be before Christ: a man of considerable stature in the Jewish faith, garnering wide respect from others for his faithful, and rigid, observance of the Jewish law – a Pharisee par excellence! More, Paul confesses to being somewhat of a braggart, “With respect to righteousness under the Law, I’m blameless.” (Verse 3:6b) Unlike the man in the Brothers Osborne track, Paul remembers his former self with great clarity. But then everything changed for Paul. He fell in love with Jesus. Now Paul looks back upon who he was before Jesus entered his life and determines that he was a foolish man – a man that valued the wrong things. What Paul once regarded as assets are now written off as a loss.

           It is important for Paul to share with his readers his credentials before becoming a follower of Jesus. His resume sparkles and he dares anyone to present credentials that are more impressive. Paul doesn’t embrace Jesus as someone who had nothing – or nothing to lose. Through the optics of what the world regards as of great value, Paul had it all. Paul had built an enviable life and reputation. Paul held “assets” that other people only dreamed of having. In possession of all anyone could have wanted Paul is invited into a relationship with Jesus. Now Paul has discovered the superior value of knowing Christ Jesus as Lord. What he once considered assets no longer has any value. Paul’s point could not be clearer. The reader is in possession of nothing that is of more value than knowing Jesus.

           Brothers Osborne song begins with the question, “Did I stop and watch the sunset fade? What gave me life and took my breath away?” These are questions that diminishes the value of a life lived before falling in love. TJ and John Osborne advance that very point later in the song, “Was my heart beatin’ in my chest? Was I even alive?” Paul confesses to as much in his letter to the Church in Philippi, “In Christ I have a righteousness that is not my own and that does not come from the Law but rather from the faithfulness of Christ.” (Verse 3:9) Before Christ, all Paul thought he possessed had been simply an illusion. Now Paul sings another tune, “I’ve heard stories ‘bout the boy I used to be. But that was before you, before you.”

Joy,